She Needed Fewer Friends

By Cockburn, Alexander | The Nation, August 6, 2001 | Go to article overview

She Needed Fewer Friends


Cockburn, Alexander, The Nation


Joe Pulitzer famously said, "A newspaper should have no friends." Looking at the massed ranks of America's elites attending Katharine Graham's funeral in Washington on July 23, it's maybe churlish to recall that phrase, but it's true. At least in political terms, Mrs. Graham had way too many friends.

The twin decisions, concerning the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, that made Mrs. Graham's name as a courageous publisher came at precisely the moment when, in biographical terms, she was best equipped to handle pressure. She'd had eight years to overcome the timidities that bore down on her after Phil Graham's suicide left her with a newspaper she resolved to run herself. The amiable but essentially conservative bipartisanship that had the notables of each incoming administration (Carter-time excepted) palavering happily in her dining room hadn't yet numbed the Post's spinal nerve.

Mrs. Graham sustained her fatal fall during an annual confab of the nation's biggest media and e-billionaires, organized by the investment banker Herb Allen and held in Sun Valley, Idaho. It was a proper setting for her passing. Sun Valley was developed as a resort by the Harrimans, starting with the nineteenth-century railroad bandit E.H. Harriman. That quintessential insider, Averell Harriman was often to be seen at Mrs. Graham's house in Georgetown.

Mrs. Graham didn't strong-arm her editors and reporters, they say. But editors and reporters aren't slow to pick up hints as to the disposition of the person who pays their wages, and she sent out plenty such clues.

In late 1974, after Nixon had been tumbled, Mrs. Graham addressed the Magazine Publishers' Association and issued a warning: "The press these days should...be rather careful about its role. We may have acquired some tendencies about overinvolvement that we had better overcome. We had better not yield to the temptation to go on refighting the next war and see conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist." She called for a return to basics. Journalists should stop trying to be sleuths. In other words: The party's over, boys and girls! It's not your business to rock the boat.

Mrs. Graham had plenty of reasons, material and spiritual, to find excessive boat-rocking distasteful. The family fortune, and the capital that bought and nourished the Post, was founded in part on Allied Chemical, the company run by her father, Eugene Meyer. I remember a hard edge in her voice when she deplored "those fucking environmentalists"--perhaps because rabble-rousers had derisively taunted her as "Kepone Kate" after a bad Allied Chemical spill in the James River. Yes, privately her language was agreeably salty.

By the early 1980s the leftish liberal Kay Graham of the late 1930s, who would associate as a tyro reporter with the red longshoreman leader Harry Bridges on the Oakland docks, was long gone. For one thing, there had been the ferocious pressmen's strike in 1975, and the successful lockout. …

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